Top 10 Two-Player Only Games

An article by Rowdy van Lieshout

A few months ago my girlfriend gave her opinion about what she thought were solid and fun two-player games. This week I’d like to give you my top ten two-player games. In this article I focus on two-player only games and later I’ll give you my favourite multi-player games that play well with two.

Top 10 Two Player Only Games

Let me first give you an impression of the kind of two-player games I in generally like or am attracted to. The games I like almost always fall into the medium to medium-light weight difficulty level. You wont find any war games in my collection and the big, long, strategy, 2-player only games are also not something you would find between my games. That does not mean that I’m not at all interested in these games, but I just like my two-player games to be a little less complicated.

The fact that I mostly play two-player only games with my girlfriend also has something to do with it of course, because, although I would love to play a game of, for instance, Twilight Struggle, A few Acres of Snow or The Battle of Five Armies. I know that I would not, for all the love of the world, be able to get her to play any war (like) or big fantasy games with me. So, I learned that, with this in mind, if I’m not able to play these game often enough, I should not go out and buy them. It’s a waste of gaming funds.

So here they are, my ten favourite two-player only games.

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10: Fungi

Fungi, or Morels, makes me think of Lost Cities from Reiner Knizia. It’s a different game, but it feels a bit similar. You are collecting sets of a cards, mushrooms in this case, and you can take card from the common supply in the middle of the table, the forest, to cook them later on. And while I don’t really like Lost Cities, or find it OK at most, I do like this one. The sets have a different size and value, your hand-size is limited, and can get extra points by taking and putting butter and cider in your pan before cooking or you can increase your hand-size by taking a basket with you while searching for mushrooms. There’s just a little more going on in this one, compared to Lost Cities, and that’s just much more fun.

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9: Jaipur

Jaipur is a very light, very simple economic game. There are six different goods, some camels and lots of rupees to be obtained. You start with a starting hand of five cards, goods or camels, and during your turn you can either take a card from the market, exchange market cards with goods from your hand or camels from your herd, take all camels from the market, or sell goods from your hand. You can never have more than seven cards in your hand. When you sell you must take as much tokens from the corresponding stack as cards you’ve sold. You must know that one good is more valuable than the other and goods are worth less the more people have sold it. You also get a bonus token if you sell three, four or five goods at the same time. You don’t know it’s value, but most of the time selling five tokens is worth more than selling three or four. When three stacks of tokens are empty, a round ends. Check your points and the player with the most points wins the round; best of three rounds is the winner.

Jaipur is just an uncomplicated little card game with lots of tiny decisions. Your hand size is limiting, so when do you sell and when do you take more cards. The camels are very useful, but you give your opponent a bunch of new cards to choose from when you take all the camels from the market. Do you let your opponent take that yellow card, you know he wants it, or do you take it yourself, although you can not use it right know. Small decisions that can be very important. Jaipur play quickly, it’s teachable in a minute, so a perfect fit for those week-nights when you’re a bit tired, but you do want to play a game.

8: Mr. Jack in New York

This game is the follow-up to Mr. Jack. Both are equally fun games, but Mr. Jack in New York is a bit more dynamic. There are more moving parts and the board changes throughout the game, which makes it more challenging. In this game one player plays Jack the Ripper, he is trying to escape the city, and the other player tries to catch him. There are a couple of characters with special abilities that both players move around the board, however at the beginning of the game the ‘Jack’ player draws a character card in secret and that’s the character the detective needs to catch. Who is who? Why does he move that one? It’s deduction done right, a very fun game.

7: The Duke

The Duke is a great two player game for people who like chess. Well not only for people who like chess, so don’t worry. The idea, however, is very similar. You move pieces around a grid. The pieces can move in different ways and you try to capture the king or the Duke in this game. There are two major differences compared to chess, which makes me like this one quite a bit. The first difference is that the pieces are double-sided tiles and both sides show how you may move the piece, both sides are a little different and every time you moved that piece you must flip it. This makes the came very dynamic, which is very interesting and fun.

Like chess, both players start with the same pieces on the board, however they can decide to place them in different starting spots. The other major difference is that player can draw more and different pieces from a bag and placing them on the board. So during the game both players fight with different pieces that have different powers. Both differences makes this game much more fun and I definitely recommend this tactical abstract game to anyone who like abstract games, but also to people who think that abstracts are boring. Because the Duke proves that they are not.

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6: Star Realms

A two-player deck builder in a tiny box. You build up your fleet of spaceships and bases to get enough attack power to destroy your opponent. That’s what’s fun about Star Realms, it’s you against your opponent, head to head. Like all other deck builder you try to make the cards you’ve bought work together. In Star Realms that means that you want to have cards of the same faction. In this game you do that because you want your opponent to lose points instead of doing it because you want to have to most points at the end of the game.

 

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5: The Rivals for Catan

Rivals is a two player card version of (Settlers of) Catan and I think they did a good job. So much so that I really like this one, while I find Catan just OK. Like in its big brother, in Rivals you collect resources by throwing a die and see what you get. However, here you have a couple of cards in your hand with a location with a special ability or a  special action cards, and you can play them or build them using your resources. Throughout the game you will acquire villages, towns and all kinds of buildings and even people and you place them in front of you in your tableau. There are multiple expansion for it, within the base game box and sold separately, that have different themes and make the game feel different. The Rivals for Catan is just a great two-player iteration of a classic game.

4: Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation

Reiner Knizia is not a designer that is known for being the most thematic designer. Most of its games are pretty abstract. Games with reasonably simple rule sets, but with a lot of depth. I think LOTR: the Confrontation is an abstract game, sure, you immediately think of Stratego when you see it, however I find that it covers the LOTR story very well. It’s an asymmetric Stratego variant. No, no, don’t walk away! It’s good, I promise. The board is a depiction of Middle Earth, divided into several areas. One player plays as Frodo and his gang, trying to get the ring to Mount Doom, and the other player plays as the forces of Sauron, trying to reach the Shire or catch Frodo. Both players have different, hidden, characters with a value and a special power. You can move around the board and when you reach an area with an opponent’s piece, there’s a confrontation. You play a card with a value or an action. add it to the value of the piece, and the player with the highest value wins. However, maybe their special powers will destroy your strategy and make you lose anyway. A quick, but very tactical game with a nice Lord of the Rings flavour. It’s just very fun.

 

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3: Akrotiri

The newest game from the list, but one of the heaviest. Not heavy, not at all, but heavier compared to the other games on this list. It still is very easy to teach and to play. However it can be a brain burner. Akrotiri is a combination of market manipulation, tile laying and pick up and deliver. You pick up goods with you little boats and the price of these goods changes over time. With the money you get from selling these goods you can buy ‘treasure maps’. On these maps you’ll find a temple in the middle of icons in a certain wind direction (north, south etc.) and by placing tiles with these icons on the table every turn you try to mimic these maps, so you know now where these temples can be found.

In this game you have action points to spend every turn and that makes it a very brain burning exercise; how to spend my action point most efficiently. Plus, creating these ‘patterns’ of symbols on the table is also very puzzlely and fun. Akrotiri is one of those slightly more complicated and deeper two-player only games. A game that gives you something to think about and still remains a very relaxing experience.

2: Balloon Cup

From one of the heavier games on this list to one of lightest. Balloon Cup is a very light game that doesn’t look spectacular, but I enjoy it very much. You place numbered cards in certain colours in front of tiles with an amount of cubes one it. The card colour has to match the cube colour.  You can place cards on your side or your opponent’s side and when there are exactly the same amount of cards in the correct colours on both sides of the tile as there are cubes o it, you check the total value on both sides. The player with lowest or the highest value, depending on what was the goal, wins the cubes on that tiles. Whit those cubes you can buy trophies. The player with the majority of trophies wins the game.

It’s fast, it’s easy, it can be very tactical, but luck is also very important. The game can be very swingy, but it just works for me. I like it that you can choose to just play for yourself or you can try to thwart your opponent as much as you can.

 

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1: Targi

This one grew on me. The first time I played it I thought it was just OK, but after the first game, when I was more familiar with the rules and gameplay, I really started to see what a nice game Targi was. It’s a worker placement and resource management game with a dry theme, I have to say that. However, the worker placement mechanism is just a little different from the mechanism you might be used to. In this game you place three workers, one by one, on the outer rim of a grid of cards and every time, at the point where your ‘worker row’ intersects a ‘worker column’, you place an extra worker on the card at the intersection. These cards can be extra goods or cards with some points and special ability that you can buy and place in your tableau. The game ends when one player has twelve cards in her tableau and the player with the most points wins.

This worker placement mechanism is very fun. You have to think about which cards you want to get, which resources you need to buy them and where in your tableau you want to place them. You have to spread your chances too, because you can actively prevent the other player to place his workers in certain rows or columns. This creates a lot of tension.

There’s just enough interactions between the players and just enough brain gymnastics to keep it interesting and stay relaxing too. Together with Akrotiri it might be a little heavier than the rest of the games here, but it’s very good. It’s the most fun game from this list: Targi. Get it. Now.

 


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18 thoughts on “Top 10 Two-Player Only Games”

  1. Thanks for the positive review of Akrotiri! I echo your choices on many of these games. I am a huge fan of Targi, Jaipur, Star Realms, Mr. Jack, LotR The Confrontation, the Rivals of Catan and Balloon Cup as well! I’ve only played Morels once, so that may take some more plays to grow on me (pun not intended!) and I’ve never played the Duke, but am not 100% intrigued!

  2. Thanks for the kind words about Balloon Cup.

    The ‘2’ graphic at the top of your article looks like it comes from Lumis. That’s a fine 2 (and 4) player game 🙂

  3. I read that Balloon Cup is really hard to find now. Just played the re-theme, Piñata, last night. Good game. I’d add Patchwork.

  4. A small correction: In Targi, each player plays only three tribesmen per turn (not four). Then you likely will have two cylinders on the intersections. Excellent game. One of my favorite 2-player games.

  5. As someone else has said, Balloon Cup has been out of print since 2004. It has been re-released as Piñata. But thanks for the recommendations! My wife and I are starting to collect!

  6. Big Mistake – your forgot the golden standard of all 2-player games: Sun Tzu. This is pure strategy and so easy to understand as well as quick to play! You should try it if you don’t know it and it will quickly still a spot in that list! 😉

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